How Should We Look At “Offensive” Art?

Posted on January 17, 2015 at 12:40 pm

Thanks to Sam Adams and Indiewire for including me in a thoughtful discussion of “offensive art” in light of the attack on the satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.  My response:

I don’t have a favorite example of offensive art, but I do have a favorite example of my favorite aspect of “offensive” art.  I love to track the trajectory of art initially considered transgressive or offensive or shocking as it moves, often very quickly, to merely edgy, then acceptable, then quaintly retro.  Some people thought that the Beatles’ haircuts spelled the end of civilization.  And the Sex Pistols were considered very offensive in their day.  They showed their contempt for society’s standards that went beyond their songs and performances.  They turned down induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a letter that showed that contempt in form and content.  A few years later, Johnny Rotten’s voice was on the audio guide at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s History of British Fashion exhibit. On the other hand, some material that was considered acceptable is now considered offensive.  Take a look at those blackface numbers in “Swing Time” and “Holiday Inn” and films with Katharine Hepburn, Alec Guinness, Marlon Brando and Mickey Rooney playing Asian roles. So all “offensive” art is important, whether it is crossing the line toward or away from acceptability because that is part of the way we test and define ourselves.

Copyright Sex Pistols 1977
Copyright Sex Pistols 1977


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